Supreme Court: Officer had no right to search container

SEATTLE — A Centralia police officer was justified when he frisked a cyclist during a traffic stop, but he didn’t have the right to open a small container found on the suspect without a warrant, the Washington state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The container search violated Tanner Russell’s “constitutional right to be free from police intrusion,” Justice Susan Owens wrote in the majority opinion.

The initial pat-down was allowed to protect officer safety, the ruling said, but the ensuing warrantless search of the container wasn’t justified because the officer didn’t have a reasonable belief that the box held a gun.

The officer found a syringe filled with methamphetamine in the container, and prosecutors charged Russell with a drug possession based on that evidence. Russell moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the search was illegal.

A Lewis County Superior Court judge sided with Russell and dismissed the case. The state appeals court reversed the decision and sent the case back for trial. On Thursday, the Supreme Court reversed the appellate court decision.

The officer had stopped Russell, who was riding a bike, for minor traffic violations in September 2011. The officer said he feared for his safety because he had stopped Russell the week before and Russell had lied then about having a gun on him.

Russell’s lawyer had argued that if the officer used that prior encounter to justify the frisk, the state had to prove that the encounter was valid or the frisk would be unconstitutional. The justices disagreed.

During the pat-down, the officer found a small box in Russell’s pants pocket and opened it.

The majority of justices said no reasonable person could have concluded that the container held a gun since it weighed only a fraction of what the pistol weighed. Once the officer took control of the container, they also noted that the threat had ended.

“Any further intrusion must end as soon as an officer discovers that the suspect does not have a weapon,” Owens wrote. “An officer may not search through a detainee’s personal effects under the unreasonable belief that they may contain a weapon.”

The state argued on appeal that the search was justified because the trial court found that Russell consented to the search in its findings of fact. The high court said there’s no evidence that Russell’s supposed consent was voluntary.

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